The Big Pond Dig

In April 2010, when the dogwoods were replacing pear trees’ white blooms with their storied flowers, Chris and I set out to destroy our lawn.

It’s something of a side effect when renting an excavator. And I didn’t care. It was my first chance to operate such seriously heavy machinery, and it was love, true glorious love.

I may have missed my calling; I had no idea playing in the dirt could be so fun.

Having decided to excavate the roughly 20-foot-long patch of sinking lawn in our backyard, with the ultimate goal of turning the resulting hole into a lushly landscaped pond, the first goal was of course to discover the source of our problems.

We purchased several large blue tarps on which to place the dirt, a halfhearted attempt to salvage our lawn. Then in rolled the excavator, courtesy of Sunbelt Rentals. Chris got a brief lesson in which joysticks swung the claw up and which shook it side to side, and then we were off and rolling.

There was a wrenching in my heart as the claw first ripped through our greenest patch of lawn, but it was quickly replaced by the thrill of the hunt. At first, the dig revealed odds and ends such as bricks, twisted half-burnt glass plastic bottles and myriad other garbage. Several feet deep, the real culprits emerged. The massive old stumps had been partially burnt and quickly covered over, left to settle over time.

Several large stumps, some with roots still attached, had begun to settle in this 20-year-old hole, causing serious sinking in the lawn.

Each time we discovered a stump, we would scoop the claw as best we could around it, pull it up an increasingly greater height, and scratch our head as to where to dispose of it. We scattered easily ten stumps–stumps so heavy the excavator could hardly hold them–in the woods over our fence. Thank goodness for the wild honeysuckle that will forever hide the dent where one of the stumps almost didn’t make it over the fence!

We took turns raking through the dirt pile for trash and scooping up more earth. A friend of Chris’ turned up to play and the three of us had a blast cheering on the stump-unearther or riding triumphantly on the rail behind the driver’s seat every time we had a new log to dispose of. We were a disgusting mess by the time we hit water and what we realized was the bottom of the hole–1o feet down.

It was less fun refilling the hole with dirt, particularly when we realized that based on everything we removed it was unlikely at best that we would get the hole even halfway filled. We were aiming for a final depth of three feet, deep enough, per The Water Garden, that we could potentially keep koi in our pond. We managed to reach a 5-foot depth, still nearly 15 feet long, by the time we were done playing excavation.

“What now,” we groaned.The new hole hardly seemed an improvement.

The solution came in the form of a Walgreen’s. A few months later, on his drive home from work, Chris spotted heavy machinery just down the street making way for a new drug store. After a quick discussion, the GC agreed for a fee he’d have one of his guys drop off a dump truck load of dirt in our driveway.

It was the most excited I’ve ever been about a dump truck. I think I may have applauded when he pulled into our driveway and began unloading a ton of dirt on the asphalt.

At least the big hole had one fan; our new akita pup loved nothing more than curling up in the cool dirt.

The applause didn’t last long. The goal was to take wheelbarrow loads of the dirt and dump them into the pond so that we could have control of the final shape. It was a process that would last through the next winter, until I dreamt about being buried alive and avalanches, and woke every morning with an ache in my arms. Dozens of people helped dig dirt, and the pile never seemed to move. When it snowed in November, I joked about charging people to ski in our driveway. My mother suggested planting a sign that said “Redneck Swimmin’ Hole” and throwing a few rubber ducks down at the bottom of the hole. “Or how about putting a sprinkler down there so you have a water feature for the wedding?” she suggested with a grin.

Ah yes. Our backyard wedding was coming up in May, and it was beginning to look like our guests would be parking around a giant pile of dirt.

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